Monday, March 25, 2013

Review: Chinese Characters by T.C. Lai

Title: Chinese Characters
Author: T.C. Lai
Genre: Linguistics
Publisher: Swindon Book Co.
Published: 1980

Rating: 3 out of 10

I have always loved the exotic, beautiful symbols that make up the written Chinese language, and I love the fact that all of them have their own story. It must make for a very rich, layered language. Though I cannot speak Chinese, I found this book in a used bookstore and bought it.

The layout of the book was a bit confusing. There is a modern Chinese character on the left of the page (about 2 or 3 per page), with a short explanation. That's clear enough. But then there are characters in red, which show what appear to be other earlier versions of the modern character, and its origins. At least that is what I assumed. However, some of these gave me the impression that perhaps the author was simply trying to make up possible interpretations. I wanted to know: are they real? Or just a visual aide?
I laughed a bit when the author says of one character "the modern word doesn't look like the original concept any more." Because really, almost none of them did, so I don't know why he felt he had to note this on that particular example.

Overall, this book was dry and did not make the topic very interesting to me. Besides the layout being confusing, it was also very drab. The text was in something like an italic Courier, a font I can't stand. To open the book and flip through it, no one would be impressed.

Once you begin reading it, the book isn't much better. The author doesn't give a story for any of the characters. It wouldn't have been hard to make things a bit more theatrical. And I'm sure that he could have chosen other characters that are more interesting, or that at least have more interesting histories.
I mean, one of his words was broom. His explanation of its origin? "Shape of a broom."
Other words sound intriguing, but he doesn't elaborate. The sign for "immortality" is a combination of person, mountain, and recluse put together. That sounds like a story to me.
The character for "demon," the author only vaguely explains as "a creature with a strange head - a demon." Oh, so that's how you recognize a demon.
For the word "swallow," (as in the bird), the author apparently could find no history to comment about, so he simply says weakly "What a life-like sketch of a swallow."

I found it amusing that the characters "person" and "others" linked together made the word for "kindness." The Chinese are such optimistic people.